The sudden Ian Cole trade drama last month had a momentary effect on the Pittsburgh Penguins. Whether head coach Mike Sullivan’s decision to make Cole a healthy scratch was a personality conflict, poor play, or a tactic to get his team’s attention, the Penguins temporarily snapped to attention.
However, Cole’s continued doghouse treatment has only served to lower the level of his play. Cole may have had rough moments before, but recently Cole’s play has been noticeably undisciplined. In the last two games, Cole has taken four minor penalties. He has received a minor penalty in four straight games.
At practice Wednesday, Cole skated on a pairing with…Sergei Gonchar. Five years ago, Cole would have been a great counterbalance to the offensive-minded Gonchar, but now it’s a tell-tale sign that Cole will be munching press box nachos tonight when the Penguins face their division rival, Columbus Blue Jackets.
Cole will sit in favor of Matt Hunwick, Chad Ruhwedel, and newly acquired Jamie Oleksiak.
While the Penguins made clear their desire to get Oleksiak into the lineup to immediately begin the reclamation project, Oleksiak’s reviews in Dallas were not good. He was a healthy scratch for coach Ken Hitchcock 13 times this season, including the last four.
However, the Penguins see potential; the Penguins see a giant, stay-at-home defenseman with mobility and a quick first pass.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby worked out with Oleksiak last summer and offered a positive assessment of Oleksiak’s mobility. Oleksiak is a giant, 6′-7″, who can move so the Penguins will look to see what they’ve acquired.
However, Oleksiak was acquired to play the right side, where neither Cole nor Hunwick is comfortable. Cole was, until the doghouse residency, a top-4 defenseman.
The Cole situation is as mystifying as it is harmful to Cole’s trade value. The Penguins have also made clear that Cole would not be re-signed, which made the burly bearded d-man nothing more than a rental acquisition for the receiving team.
Now, others team’s are watching Cole’s play decline–as a result of the tumultuous situation.
Any guesses what that does to Cole’s value?
Hunwick has not lived up to expectations this season. He has the worst shots against per game of the Penguins defensemen. Hunwick yields nearly nine shots per game. Cole only surrenders 6.5 shots, in similar ice time.
Even Kris Letang, in advanced minutes, surrenders only 8.5 shots per game.
Hunwick has been credited with 10 giveaways and has a negative Corsi, one of the few Penguins on the negative end (49.8%). Cole, despite similar ice time and defensive zone starts, has a 52.5 Corsi.
Corsi certainly isn’t a bedrock barometer, but it does further re-enforce the eye test that Cole has been one of the Penguins superior defensemen this season.
However, Hunwick hasn’t been rumored to have clashed with Sullivan.
Sullivan hasn’t received much criticism in his Penguins tenure. In this situation, Sullivan appears to be accessing the dark side of his friend and mentor, John Tortorella. Sullivan is making Cole an unnecessary scapegoat.
If indeed Cole is headed to the press box, it’s a mistake and an avoidable one.
If the Penguins want their best team on the ice and get full value for Cole, both on the ice and on the trade market, the air must clear. Sullivan making Cole the goat should end. And…Cole must get over it, too.
For a team struggling to find its stride, shelving its best shot suppressing defenseman for an unknown quantity and a lesser defenseman seems a bad move.
Perhaps Oleksiak can fill Cole’s role. Cole was also once a resident of Hitchcock’s doghouse and cast off, too. But, until Oleksiak proves he’s able to upgrade his play, and Hunwick raises his game, the Penguins and Cole are both shorting themselves.